Jim Rea: We are going on 13 years now and we have the same five guys – My cousin, Gary Rea (upright, acoustic bass); Mark Cassidy (banjo); Chad Graves (dobro/steel guitar); Nolan Lawrence (mandolin) and myself (guitar.) All the members of the group sing vocals. We’ve also taken a big leap of faith coming into 2022, and we’ve added a drummer, full time. We’ve been playing with him over the last few months, testing it out, to see how it feels, and how people respond to it, and we love it so much. It’s breathed new life into it, new types of songs are coming out, and we’re looking to rock, funk and things like that. So, we’ve added a sixth member and his name is John Anderson.
Q: Tell us more about your style of music.
A: We lean very heavily on bluegrass with an upright bass, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and dobro, which is the slide guitar that you play on your lap. So, we play bluegrass, and we concentrate on playing bluegrass festivals, and writing bluegrass music. We wanted our bluegrass sound to have a new, progressive edge to it, but we’re still firmly established in the bluegrass realm. As we started playing more, a little bit of country seeped in, but we’ve been primarily a bluegrass band, and kind of the wild card, if you will, as far as that style goes. Then, we got into some tribute acts and things like that, which we continue to do to this day, but we’re rooted firmly in bluegrass as far as our style. And now that we have a drummer, we’re stepping into country, stepping into rock, stepping into funk, and we’re exploring some different genres.
Q: Is WhoGrass based on the music of The Who?
A: Absolutely. In 2015, we were approached by a gentleman named Louis Meyers, one of the co-founders of SXSW, and he was the director of Folk Alliance, which is another musical organization. We met him, and he was always poking his head around the corner at our showcases, and he laid it on us in 2015 that he had been looking for a band to arrange and record The Who’s famous rock opera, “Tommy” as a bluegrass opera…So, we did that, and we’ve toured all around the world, from coast to coast, here in America, Australia, UK, and up into Canada. It did well for us for four or five years. Then, we parlayed that show into WhoGrass. Instead of just doing the “Tommy” album, we took all The Who’s hits from all their records. We put them in chronological order, and we tell the story along the way of The Who’s career, and we play a much more hit laden, accessible and sing-along-type show now to where all the songs were top ten singles, if not number one hits from The Who. So, yes, it does have to do with The Who, and it’s based on The Who, done on bluegrass instruments. WhoGrass is just a clever name we put on it. Bluegrass meets rock and roll is the motto of the show, and it’s a spin off of “Tommy” that we did back in 2015. It’s music of The Who that meets a bluegrass sound or instrumentation.
Q: You’ve met Pete Townshend a few times and opened for The Who. What did he think about The HillBenders version of “Tommy?”
A: They caught wind of our “Tommy” project and Pete Townshend, the leader of the band and principal songwriter reached out to us and said, “We love it.”
Q: What are some of the ways you make the music of The Who your own?
A: …Our dobro player, we call him Keith Moon of the dobro, because he’s just so percussive on his instrument. He pounds the thing and swings it around. He’s got that intensity. We all try to make the music as percussive and as big as possible, because The Who is a giant, rock icon. We naturally have some of that, and I think that’s why Louis chose us, but we know in these nice, big venues, we need to make sure and really accentuate that. So, we open ourselves up to be as big as possible. We’re using two, three, or four-part harmonies on the songs. We get the crowd involved, so they are singing and clapping on certain parts, making sure we can fill up the space as much as we possibly can. We move around a lot, and we like to interact with the audience. So, these are the kinds of things we do to make these WhoGrass shows as special, and as big, and enjoyable as possible, and entertaining is the bottom line.
Q: As far as original music from the band, what have you been working on?
A: Last week, we just released a new single, “Every Time I Go Away” with drums on it. We definitely stepped out of bluegrass, more into acoustic rock with this song. We’re proud of it. It’s all over our social media channels, on Spotify and Apple Music. It has a great video with it as well. We were founded on original music and it’s what we’ll continue to do. The cover stuff was just something to springboard us. At every show we do, we try to give the audience four, five, or six original songs at the end of the show. That way, we make original music part of the show and we continue to share our creativity with the audience.